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Even while Leslie Combs II of Spendthrift Farm beamed and bowed in the Keeneland Sales Pavilion last Monday night after selling a yearling for a world-record $715,000, other Bluegrass horsemen were muttering—in jealousy, admiration, anger and disbelief. Combs, the slick Lexington, Ky. horse trader, had once more topped the sale with a world-record price for the star of his consignment. An egotistical old gent with a drawl as thick as sorghum molasses, Combs loves the power, prestige and publicity attendant to the sale of a record yearling. Lately, however, his methods and behind-the-scenes deals have come under scrutiny and sharp criticism.
The first hint that there might be price fixing at Keeneland came when it was revealed that Canadian Frank McMahon bought 1969 Kentucky Derby winner Majestic Prince for only $125,000 at the 1967 Keeneland sale—instead of the $250,000 that went down in the record book. Unknown to the public—and, presumably, to many other bidders—McMahon owned half of Majestic Prince's dam, Gay Hostess, in partnership with Combs. Thus, McMahon was bidding 50� to everyone else's dollar.
And last summer Combs' sale of a Raise a Native yearling for a record $625,000 also was called into question when it was revealed that 1) buyer Wallace Gilroy, age 87, wasn't at the auction and, in fact, had announced that he was getting out of racing; 2) Gilroy wasn't listed among Keeneland's accredited buyers because of what sales officials later termed "a clerical error"; 3) the agent bidding on Gilroy's behalf was none other than Keeneland sales director Bill Evans; and 4) the colt was shipped back to Spendthrift and placed in the hands of Combs' trainer, Dick Fischer. Named Kentucky Gold, he has yet to race.
Was Keeneland conspiring with Combs—a director of the Keeneland Association and long the anchor of the track's sales—to set the world record? Whose money was Evans bidding with, Gilroy's or Combs'? Gilroy was unavailable for comment and Combs denied any chicanery.
Some Kentucky breeders who have watched Leslie Combs, and competed against him, are angry. "It's ridiculous, the deals he pulls," said one man who asked not to be identified. "He arranges these false sales and they make the rest of us look like thieves. The public figures that if Combs is doing it, the other breeders must be, too. It's bad for the industry. He gets the publicity, and the poor guy who sells a horse for a legitimate $300,-000 or $400,000 gets nothing." Why does Keeneland tolerate the situation, if what the breeder says is true? "Because Combs is Keeneland," the man explained.
Before last week's auction, the word was out that Combs was going for another world record, this time with a yearling son of Raise a Native and Gay Hostess, a handsome red full brother to Majestic Prince. Those who claimed to be in the know said Combs would get between $725,000 and $750,000 for the colt, and that this year the shenanigans wouldn't be as obvious as they were in 1974.
At dinner in the Keeneland grandstand before the sale, Combs was his usual affable self. He yelled to a friend headed for the ring, "Tell that auctioneer to take his time, ya heah? Tell him he don't have to set no world record for how fast he can sell horses."
Shortly after 10:30 p.m. the prized yearling—Hip No. 152—was led into the arena. The bidding came in quantum leaps of hundreds of thousands of dollars, then in tiny steps of $2,000 or so as the price edged past $700,000. Canadian John Sikura, a man who would bid $1.6 million for three stars of the sales but not be successful in buying one (he settled on seven lesser animals), signaled $711,-000. But he was raised to $715,000. The gavel was banged at that figure, giving Combs another world record.
Immediately, reporters and photographers ( ABC had Jim McKay on the scene, CBS had Heywood Hale Broun) mobbed Combs and the successful bidder, a handsome lady who identified herself as Mrs. Ann Trimble Clark, owner of Ponjola Farm in the Bluegrass. Mrs. Clark said she was acting as agent for Mr. and Mrs. Franklin Groves of Minneapolis. She said they were newcomers to the thoroughbred game but quite successful with show horses, and that they had authorized her to bid $700,000 for the colt. "The other $15,000 was mine," said Mrs. Clark, "because I wanted these people to have the horse so badly." She said Mr. and Mrs. Groves couldn't be reached for comment because they were "out of the country."
This is where events began to take a peculiar turn. While other reporters were interviewing Combs, I obtained the number of the Groves residence from Minneapolis information and dialed it. A woman answered. When I identified myself as a newsman, she said, "Oh, God." Then, "Frank, it's a reporter." After some muffled conversation, she said, "Well, I guess I've got to talk to you."